The concept has been around for a while, but the pandemic reinforced the importance of providing support to families and students to enhance learning.
This spring, Dr. Michael D. Fox elementary school opened a pantry for its students and families. It has fridges packed with prepared food, cupboards filled with canned goods, cabinets of neatly folded donated clothes, and on top of them, packs of diapers, wipes and other toiletries.
“Lots of families were asking for help,” said LaToya Adgers, the site coordinator for the pre-K to fifth grade public school, which serves almost 500 students. “We sat down and asked families, ‘If this was on campus, would you come here? And what do you need?’”
It’s not that unusual for a school to have a food or clothes pantry for needy families. What is unusual is that Ms. Adgers works for a Hartford community services organization, The Village for Families & Children. And it was The Village that reached out to businesses and organizations to ask them to donate the goods.
M.D. Fox, as it’s called, with its lively students dressed in their light blue and khaki uniforms, is part of a growing phenomenon in the educational landscape: the community school. The Village coordinates the 10 to 20 organizations that work with M.D. Fox.
Community schools, which, among other things, integrate nonprofits, businesses and colleges on the school site to offer services to students and their families, have existed for more than a century. There are now an estimated 5,000 such schools nationwide, according to the national Coalition for Community Schools.
But the pandemic demonstrated what has long been known — that schools now serve as hubs for resources far beyond just teaching and learning — and the concept of community schools is garnering renewed attention and money.
“Ultimately, the pandemic has shown the power and potential of community schools,” stated a brief by the Brookings Institution.
The trend is bolstered by research demonstrating that community schools help increase students’ attendance and graduation rates. By addressing an array of student and family issues — from hunger and homelessness to health care — schools are lifting barriers that prevent students from fully participating in and benefiting from their education. The approach also helps to build trust that allows families to embrace the schools and their child’s learning.
“Family engagement is foundational,” said José Muñoz, director of the Coalition for Community Schools.
A full-service community school includes four elements: various integrated support services through nonprofits, businesses and higher-education institutions; active family and community engagement; expanded and enriched learning, which can include after-school, weekends and summers; and collaborative partnerships among parents, students, school administrators and community leaders.
While these four pillars, as they are called, help define community schools, they shouldn’t be standardized, as each serves different populations and needs, Mr. Muñoz said. But one key element of a successful community school, he added, is a dedicated point person at each school — or in small or rural communities, for the district — that serves as the coordinator, such as Ms. Adgers at the Hartford school. Another is to focus on inclusive decision-making with families, educators and administrators.
A true community school initiative should not just be seen as additional support services, however, but a redefining of the relationship between schools, communities, students and families, advocates for the approach say.
Universities and colleges often build valuable partnerships with community schools. In 2015, the University of Pennsylvania established the Netter Center University-Assisted Community Schools Network; approximately 70 universities are now part of the effort.
Aside from supplying college students to assist and supplement staff in a variety of areas, they can offer much needed technical assistance and conduct research about or with community school students. And bringing the public school students on campus for a program or sports event gives the children firsthand experience of the college world.
Some wonder why schools should serve as essentially extended community centers rather than solely focus on teaching and learning. Advocates say it’s because everything beyond the school’s walls — lack of food, chaotic environments, mental and physical health challenges — impinges on learning.
“If we took care of our children in this country, the way other industrialized societies do, this might not be as necessary,” said Linda Darling-Hammond, president of the California State Board of Education. “The public education in this country has always been the glue that holds a lot of communities together.
For example, many students at M.D. Fox have asthma. “With state insurance or no insurance, the children often end up in the E.R.,” said Brooke H. Kokus, a physician assistant who serves M.D. Fox. “That’s three to four hours each time.” Instead, she can typically treat asthma in school so a student can stay in class and a parent or grandparent doesn’t have to lose work time.
M.D. Fox is not an outlier in Hartford; after piloting the community schools strategy in 2009, all 39 of the district’s public schools are community schools, receiving different levels of support depending on the needs, said Nuchette Black-Burke, chief engagement and partnerships officer for the district.
The school district, one of the largest in Connecticut, serves 16,757 students, 57 percent of whom are Hispanic, 29 percent Black, 7 percent white and 5 percent Asian. It is a high-poverty area surrounded by more affluent — and predominately white — suburbs.
The public is increasingly becoming aware that community schools can offer a response “to the deepening of poverty, homelessness and food insecurity that children in the United States experience, and have increasingly experienced since the 1980s,” Dr. Darling-Hammond said.
In May, California approved the first round of grants of a $3 billion, seven-year investment in community schools. While California has made the biggest commitment, other states, such as Maryland and New Mexico, as well as districts across the country, including New York and Los Angeles, are invested in such efforts.
The Biden administration has also made community schools a priority; federal appropriations for community school grants remained flat at $10 million between 2010 and 2015 and then began gradually increasing; it grew to $30 million in 2021 and $75 million this fiscal year, according to the Education Department.
A 2020 RAND Corporation study assessing the impact of New York City community schools over three years — 2015 to 2018 — found that student attendance and graduation improved in elementary, middle and high schools. There were also fewer disciplinary incidents in elementary and middle school, but not in high schools.
There is less research, however, demonstrating improvement in academic outcomes, although Dr. Darling-Hammond noted that a review of 143 studies on community schools by the Learning Policy Institute, a nonprofit education research organization, found well-implemented community schools have shown better learning outcomes for schools and students. Dr. Darling-Hammond is president and chief executive of the organization.
“It takes a while,” she said. “First we have to focus on attendance and graduation and then achievement follows.”
Although community schools have broad support, there are some dissenters. In 2017, the Public Matters project at Teachers College at Columbia University conducted a national survey of 3,117 adults. Sixty-five percent supported the idea of community schools; 18 percent did not.
Those who said they opposed community schools — who were overwhelmingly white men — expressed general distrust of the model and the education system as a whole. As one respondent said, “This sounds like it would very quickly come to serve interests of sponsors and the whims [of] people who have no background in education.”
There is also concern from supporters that the investment in community schools will be “a lost opportunity if it’s not also about new ways to both teach and learn,” said Hayin Kimner, managing director of the California Community Schools Learning Exchange. “We can make kids feel safe and healthy, but if we’re not also looking at instruction — at educational equity and access and restorative justice — we’re just fiddling around the edges.”
And those changes will take time, something policymakers and parents don’t always want to give; time not just to build leadership and implement services, but to create trust among families, community organizations and schools.
Yamil Ramos, M.D. Fox’s family and community support service provider, who is a district employee and works hand-in-hand with Ms. Adgers, has seen that trust grow over the years, especially during the pandemic when he was constantly checking on families, delivering food and laptops or just dropping by to see how things were going.
He knows almost all the students by name, walking the halls, bumping fists.
In the morning, a parent told Mr. Ramos his child might be absent for dental problems. No need, Mr. Ramos said and walked the parent over to the school’s on-site dental hygienist. Later that day at the school’s medical suite, he was told another parent didn’t have transportation to pick up her sick child.
“No problem. If the big boss says OK, I’ll drive her home,” he said cheerfully.
Valerie Bond, a second-grade teacher at M.D. Fox, said having an organization like The Village coordinating services gives her a place to turn to for help when she is worried about a student or a family.
“All the support from outside agencies make us better teachers,” she said. “We can provide more help for parents, so they can give more help to their children.”